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New York City chef - Cookbook author - Caterer - Restaurant consultant - Fundraiser for worldwide relief efforts ... VIKAS KHANNA IS ONE BUSY MAN
BY PIP STROMGREN

Friday - June 09, 2006 - Life didn't start out easy for Vikas Khanna. As a child he had several leg operations and wore braces until he was 13. The day they came off, he says, 'I ran, ran and ran!'

Jerrey Roberts
Richard Stromgren
Vikas Khanna, center, chats with guests earlier this year at a cooking class and dinner that was a fundraiser for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Khanna, a native of India, is now a New York-based chef.
Perhaps it was the inability to run and play that drew Khanna into his family's kitchen in Amritsar, India. From an early age, he helped his grandmother cook and it was from her that he learned many secrets of Indian cuisine and spices.

By the age of 10, Khanna was creating his own recipes. At 14, he catered a wedding for 1,000 with the help of two other cooks. At 17, he opened a catering business called Lawrence Gardens.

In 1990, Khanna was accepted at the WelcomGroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, in south India. On his way to the interview, he had an accident that left him partially blind in one eye. Undeterred, he completed the four-year program. After graduation, he worked at various hotel chains in India before returning to his hometown in northern India and his catering business, which flourished, he says.

In 2000, eager to gain wider experience, Khanna came to New York. His first job was as a dishwasher on the Upper West Side. By 2002, he was executive chef at an upscale Tribeca restaurant, Salaam Bombay. He is now the executive chef at Tandoor Palace and acts as consultant to various other new restaurants.

Not one to waste time, Khanna also runs a catering business and teaches at his cooking school, Sanskrit Culinary Arts. In addition, he is an accomplished artist/sculptor and has self-published five books about Indian cuisine, including 'The Spice Story of India' and 'The Cuisine of Gandhi,' which features his own artwork.

Right now, Khanna is working on a proposal for yet another cookbook with publicist/agent Lisa Ekus, who lives in Hatfield. Earlier this year, the two hosted a cooking class and dinner at Ekus' home as a fund-raiser for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

The guests gathered first in the dining room around a long table covered with ingredients and a copy of each recipe. After a brief introduction by Khanna, everyone moved to the kitchen to begin what turned out to be a four-hour, hands-on prep marathon.

A good-looking, unassuming young man with a charismatic smile, Khanna himself was everywhere - advising, reassuring. When a blender bottom fell off, spilling emerald-green mint chutney, he calmly took over, saved what he could and then added more ingredients. 'No matter - we can fix it' was his constant mantra.

Khanna, who describes his cooking style as a fusion between traditional Indian and diverse American flavors, mixes and tastes with his hands, stressing that it is 'important to get your fingers in the food, to feel the texture.' Everyone got to handle the bread doughs, and, as one guest observed, the puri (puff bread) felt like Play-Doh while the paratha (flat bread) was more like a pizza dough.

Khanna also shared cooking tips, like his trick for getting seeds out of a pomegranate. 'Cut into it just a little, then break it apart gently. Turn each half upside down over a bowl and tap it hard all over.' As he demonstrated, using a heavy knife handle, the seeds popped out easily.

By dinner time, the table was again loaded: grilled shrimp and mango, spicy chickpea curry, baked fish stuffed with spices, coconut chicken curry, mushroom and rice pulao, roasted cauliflower and peas, ginger-flavored mustard greens. For dessert, there was saffron-flavored cr¦me brulee, Assam spiced tea and a dish Khanna put together at the last minute, a subtle blend of sugared rose petals, yogurt and cardamom that would be great as a topping on ice cream.

The fundraiser for the Food Bank was just one of Khanna's charitable efforts. Now that he is in his mid-30s, helping others has become an all-consuming passion, he says. In 2003, he became the founding member of New York Chefs Cooking for Life, a nonprofit that raises money for relief efforts worldwide by organizing food-tasting events featuring four-star New York chefs. A cookbook, 'New York Chefs Cooking For Life,' with recipes from the group's 2005 tsunami benefit (which raised $50,000) and Khanna's photography, is due out soon. Khanna is currently busy coordinating the first Cooking for Life event outside the United States - a July fundraiser in Egypt to raise money to build ramps and rest rooms for disabled people visiting the pyramids. He is working on a tour package for Americans that will include a free ticket to the event.

Khanna also conducts food-tasting classes for people with visual disabilities to help them better understand the sense of taste and aromas, to 'move them beyond the microwave oven.' He takes no salary, he says; all the money raised through the classes goes toward cures for blindness in children in South Asia. A companion cookbook, 'Vision of Palate,' printed in Braille, will be published sometime this year.

Khanna posts information about his fundraising efforts on his Web site, www.vkhanna.com, which also includes recipes and links to online sources for Indian spices.

The first two recipes below are from the Food Bank fundraiser and will also appear in Khanna's proposed new cookbook.

Mint Chutney

This versatile sauce can be used as an appetizer dip, to top vegetables like cauliflower, or to marinate meats.

1 cup cleaned, washed and drained coriander

1/4 cup cleaned, washed and drained mint leaves

3 green chilis, split open and the seeds removed

Juice of half a lemon

1/4 cup plain yogurt

20 to 25 peanuts

Salt to taste (if you use salted peanuts, you may not need more)

Remove all thick stems from the coriander and mint (small stems are fine to leave on). Coarsely chop the herbs and chilis. Be sure to wash your hands afterward as the chili juice will sting your eyes.

Put the herbs and chilis in a blender with the rest of the ingredients; blend until smooth. Add a little water if necessary. Taste and season.

Remove from the blender and store in a clean, dry airtight jar in the refrigerator.

Grilled Shrimp and Mango

on Skewers

Serves 6

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon peeled, minced fresh ginger

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 teaspoon dried, crushed red pepper

18 uncooked colossal shrimp or 36 jumbo shrimp (about 2 pounds), peeled, deveined, tails left on

2 red bell peppers, each cut into 12 pieces

2 firm but ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, each cut into 12 wedges

6 12-inch bamboo skewers (for colossal shrimp) or 12 for jumbo shrimp

Soak the skewers in water for 30 minutes and drain.

Mix the first four ingredients in a large bowl. Add the shrimp, bell peppers and mangoes. Toss to coat.

Alternate bell pepper, mango and 3 colossal shrimp on each of 6 skewers, or alternate bell pepper, mango and 3 jumbo shrimp on each of 12 skewers. These can be prepared up to four hours ahead. Cover and chill.

Preheat the grill to medium. Grill the skewered shrimp until cooked through, about 4 minutes per side for the colossal shrimp and 3 minutes per side for the jumbos. Serve hot with rice.

Fish Tikka

Serves 4

This recipe is from Khanna's Web site.

4 skinless salmon fillets (1-1/2 to 2 pounds total), each about 1-inch thick, cut into cubes

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger

2 tablespoons nonfat yogurt

1 tablespoon garam masala

Salt to taste

4 fresh edible orchids, for garnish

Season the fish with salt and the lemon juice. Place in an ovenproof dish.

Mix the oil, cumin seeds, flour, garlic, ginger, yogurt, garam masala and salt. Pour this mixture over the fish, then cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the fish, uncovered, until it flakes easily with a fork, about 25 minutes. Serve with tamarind chutney, and garnished with the fresh orchids.